I wrote a post about literary tattoos on my writing blog last year, featuring the tattoo site Contrariwise, where people display photographs of their writing-inspired body art. The photo from Contrariwise I used shows two lovers hand-in-hand. The woman has Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am. I am. I am.’, from The Bell Jar, tattooed on her inner arm, from elbow to wrist; the man has Marlowe’s, ‘Fly, o man’, from Doctor Faustus on his. Interestingly the Plath phrase also appears in her poem ‘Suicide Off Egg Rock’:
‘And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am.’
Most of the traffic that comes to my blog as a result of this post uses the search string ‘Sylvia Plath tattoo’. Plath’s introspective but direct poetic style clearly has huge appeal to younger readers and the variety of Plath tattoos on the Contrariwise site is testament to this. One of the tattoos on display use three lines from Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’; the lines are winding tattooed stems that hold up three scarlet tulip heads. It looks beautiful.
Another young man has ‘by a mad miracle I go intact’ on his chest from Plath’s ‘Street Song’:
‘By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops;’
That poem continues quite bloodily – ‘heart and guts hung hooked / And bloodied as a cow’s split frame’, but I suppose that’s not pretty or profound enough to be inked forever on the skin. Other favourite poets for tattoos include ee cummings, Longfellow, Poe, Frost and Ginsberg. It’s an American-based site.
On another site, Every Tattoo, I found a woman with the words ‘Virginia Woolf’ tattooed in large letters on her breastbone, like a torc. There is also a quote, on a woman’s foot, from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:
‘It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Most tattoos on these sites are introspective and life-affirming. They follow the dictum of the tattooist Carmey, in Plath’s short story, ‘The Fifteen Dollar Eagle’: ‘Wear your heart on your skin’.
I’ve been wondering what an Irish poetry fan or writer even might get inked on their body. Maybe Séamus Heaney’s squat pen in the form of an arty quill? Or the line ‘Hunting words I sit all night’ from Flower’s translation of ‘Pangur Bán’?
Tattoos are not the rebel yell they once were; it’s probably more unusual now to find a thirty-something without a tattoo. But they often have deep meaning for their owner – and probably even moreso when they are taken from a much-loved poem.
My favourite book on tattoos is Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. One of its editors, poet Kim Addonizio says: ‘It’s natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them – or that maps a direction they want to go.’ However, although she has five tattoos already, none of them are text-based. She says, ‘As soon as I find the right words, they’ll be inked somewhere on my skin.’ I’m in the market for a new tattoo but I think I’ll follow Kim’s lead and take my time choosing the words.
(A version of this post first appeared in the Poetry Ireland Review newsletter.)